Crazy for country

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This September, St Lucia is holding its first Country & Blues Festival – but why is the island so in love with the  sounds of the American South? Jesse Serwer tunes in to find out

It’s Tuesday afternoon in the departures lounge at St Lucia’s Hewanorra International Airport, when a blind man seated near the middle of the room announces his presence with strums on an acoustic guitar. After cueing up a beat on a drum machine and adjusting his microphone stand, Morgan Dupal breaks into a vintage tune by the American country singer Charley Pride.

The choice of music might seem unusual to someone making their first visit to St Lucia but, for residents and frequent guests of this eastern Caribbean island, the moment is classic ‘Sent Lisi’. The 72-year-old Dupal, who also goes by the names Jim Snow, Coco and the Blind Entertainer, is one of numerous country performers on the island. Country is among the most popular styles of music on St Lucia, with an appeal that cuts across generations and economic strata, through rural communities and into the main towns and cities. On Sundays, when the island’s top radio stations fill the airwaves with country classics by artists like Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette and Kitty Wells, it’s nearly impossible to hear anything else.

“Here in St Lucia, people get very intimate with country music,” says Linus Modeste, a local country music singer who performs under the stage name LM Stone. “They don’t see it as a ‘foreign music’ – it is part of our culture.”

No one can pinpoint the exact moment when country music first arrived in St Lucia, but it is generally agreed that the phenomenon dates back over a half century.

“There are a lot of myths and legends about how it came into St Lucia,” says Thomas Leonce, CEO of the St Lucia Events Company, the governmental agency that oversees the country’s cultural programming. “There was an American military base here in the 1940s, and signals were being sent through the radio, and apparently what was being sent was country music. Another story is that, years ago, we had labourers who would be recruited to cut cane in Florida, and it’s been said that these guys came back with music when they finished that stint. These are two angles that I have heard pretty consistently but, for the past 50 years or more, it has been a feature of our culture.”

To capitalise on country’s popularity locally, and to attract fans of the genre from overseas, this autumn the St Lucia Events Company is organising the island’s first Country & Blues Festival. Part of the broader Soleil Festival, a series of concerts and cultural events designed to lure travellers to St Lucia during the island’s off season from May to October, the three-day fest (running 15-17 September) will showcase international and local acts from both genres.

Golden oldies
“We have had big country and western artists performing in St Lucia before – Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn,” Leonce says. “John Hogan from Ireland, who sang ‘I’ll Be Your Stepping Stone’, has put on two or three concerts here, and even wrote a song about St Lucia. That shows how deep it goes. It is not something novel we picked out of the air.”

When St Lucians speak of country music, they generally mean vintage country and western from the golden era of the Grand Ole Opry, Porter Wagoner and Texas honky tonks. The pop-leaning country of contemporary artists such as Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert or even Garth Brooks barely registers here, if at all. George Jones and Jim Reeves are St Lucia’s country icons – the most requested artists at most any country dance on the island.

“It’s the stories – the cheating songs, the heartbreak songs, the ‘don’t leave me, come back to me’ stuff – that really made country [in St Lucia],” says LM Stone, highlighting the appeal country had for its original wave of St Lucian fans. “It was a long haul for those men: they were leaving ladies at home and travelling to work for months, and when they’d come back those songs were soothing for them.”

Dennis ‘Prio’ Primus remembers hearing Jim Reeves’ ‘Across the Bridge’ as a child in Castries, fostering his life-long fascination with country. An auto technician by trade, he frequently travelled to the US for work over many years. “Every time I got to a destination, I would go straight to the store to see if I could pick up some country CDs,” he says.

After an executive at local station Radio 100 became aware of his extensive country collection, he was offered a slot. He would eventually parlay his renown as a DJ into opening Nashville Palace (later Prio’s Country Palace), a dance hall above the Castries Market in St Lucia’s capital. In its heyday, the club attracted crowds of up to 2,000 people on a Saturday or Sunday. “When you wanted to listen and dance to country, this was the place to be,” says Primus. (Prio’s closed several years ago, but Primus is constructing another, more modest-sized venue in the Corinth area.)

One act you might have encountered at Prio’s was LM Stone. One of the few St Lucian country singers to have plied his trade away from the island, Stone recorded several albums in Nashville and won the talent competition at the Wildhorse Saloon, one of the most iconic venues in country music’s capital city. He recalls the responses he received as a black man from the islands singing country music in Tennessee.

“I was the only black person there [at Wildhorse Saloon] when I came in first. That really propelled me, made me say: I can do this, this thing is meant to get great,” Stone recalls. “Everywhere I went people would say: my God, it’s about time for this.”

Back in St Lucia after several years away, Stone admits that his stateside career might have developed further if he’d muted the influence of his hero, legend George Jones. But that wasn’t an an option. “This old man said to me: I know the labels would want to sign you, but you have to lose the George Jones sound,” Stone recalls. “But it was so much in my blood. Whenever I open my mouth – I could be singing reggae – it comes out in the George Jones format.”

Though sounding just like an icon of country music’s old school might have limited his opportunities in Nashville, it’s helped make Stone a draw on St Lucia’s hotel circuit. Visitors to the island can catch him at Coco Palm in Rodney Bay on Sunday nights, Anse Chastanet in Soufrière on Monday nights and, on alternating Thursdays, at Hotel Bel Jou in Castries and St James’s Club Morgan Bay. He continues to play overseas as well, having recently appeared at the Scandinavian Country Music Festival in Furuvik, Sweden, and Wassermusik in Berlin.

Reggae rhythms
Country’s pervasiveness on St Lucia often piques the interest of foreigners, especially Americans, who associate the genre with rural USA. Oregon-based filmmaker Ian Berry was so taken by the phenomenon that he made a feature-length documentary on the subject – Make Mine Country, which was screened at last year’s Trinidad+Tobago Film Festival.

But St Lucia’s appreciation for country is not unique among Caribbean islands. Jamaica, in particular, has shown an affinity for the genre. Acts such as Kenny Rogers and Skeeter Davis have drawn large, fervent crowds to concerts on the island, and country’s influence is evident in the outlaw stances of reggae artists from Bob Marley (‘I Shot the Sheriff’) to Bounty Killer. Countless country staples have been adapted into reggae and, in 2011, VP Records assembled Reggae’s Gone Country, an entire album of country songs covered by Jamaican acts.

St Lucia, however, takes its devotion to country a few steps further. “St Lucians don’t like just listening to country music,” Primus says. “They like to dance at the same time.”

Line dances are part and parcel of the St Lucian country experience – as are cowboy boots and Stetson hats – and, if you want to fully immerse yourself, you’d better learn the steps. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s not uncommon on country nights in St Lucia to see locals teaching the steps to American tourists.

Stone observes that country shares features with folk music that existed on the island for hundreds of years. “If you look at our cultural heritage, what we call the kwadril has violin, acoustic guitar, the banjo – pretty much the same [instruments] that country started with,” Stone says. “I guess that was why our fore-fathers held on to country music. They would sing a love song to their spouse or girlfriend, and that’s what country was about – bringing love to the home. And when [a relationship] didn’t work out, well, country music would still have something to say about that, too.”

These days, Twist in Gros Islet has become the top destination for St Lucians in need of a country fix on a Sunday night, filling the void left by Prio’s. But country can be heard coming out of bars across the island, from Rodney Bay in the north to Vieux-Fort in the south.

For the love of it
At Hewanorra Airport, Morgan Dupal plays more songs from Charley Pride, as well as an original called ‘Necessary to See’, which he sings in Creole, still widely spoken on St Lucia. Dupal, who was born blind, taught himself to play the harmonica as a youth; he later picked up the guitar and joined a group called the Two Tones. He’s been singing country longer than anyone else in St Lucia; since 1968, he guesses. He’s played many different styles of music over the years, but country has always been the staple, he says. “The people – the tourists, the St Lucian people – just love it.”

Jesse Serwer is editor of LargeUp, a global platform for Caribbean arts, music and culture. www.largeup.com

St Lucia Country & Blues Festival 15-17 Sept www.stlucia.org/summerfestival

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